Fate of brewery workers uncertain as Labatt strike drags on

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The fate of Labatt brewery workers in St. John's, Newfoundland remains uncertain as the strike by its approximately 50 employees (NAPE Local 7004) has dragged on since April and whose workers walked off the job after negotiations hit a standstill. NAPE has said that workers are being asked for significant concessions despite massive profits by Labatt's parent company AB InBev. On March 25, the workers went on strike without union authorization following Labatt's request that the workers train their own temporary replacements. 

In June, a boycott campaign was launched, supported by NAPE and the Canadian Brewery Workers Alliance, asking Newfoundlanders to refrain from buying Labatt and a large numbers of other brands manufactured at the site. The union and Labatt have declined to outline specific points of disagreement in bargaining, but representatives have mentioned insurance and benefits issues in past reports.

Over the spring and summer talks broke off multiple times, and no formal talks have been held since July. Labatt has cast its offer as comparable to those made at other breweries in Canada, but in June Chris Henley, the lead negotiator for NAPE, voiced strong disagreement and called the deal "highly concessionary." He expressed concern that the deal's changes would set a precedent for other breweries in Canada. Both Labatt and NAPE have avoided public discussion of bargaining details, except to allude to concerns about wages and benefits such as group insurance.

Following a court injunction issued against the workers in April, wherein Judge Donald Burrage ruled that they may not block access to the brewery premises, Labatt erected a fence around the site. 

The Canadian Brewery Workers Alliance has cited international support from workers, while the Canadian Labour Congress announced its endorsement of the boycott campaign in August. NUPGE also coordinated an email writing campaign to demand that Labatt stop using replacement workers and return to the bargaining table. 

In October, NAPE raised strike pay by 33 per cent, and in November requested that the provincial government appoint a conciliation board to help end the strike.

Unconfirmed reports of resumed bargaining

Last Wednesday, an AB InBev employee who spoke to rabble.ca on condition of anonymity said that both parties "went back to the table yesterday morning [with] a set of ground rules in place this time." 

Lorraine Michael, leader of the Newfoundland and Labrador NDP, also said that she had "heard that rumour as well." On Thursday, she told rabble that "my hope is that they have. Again, I've heard it as a rumour. I certainly hope that it's true. It's absolutely ridiculous having these workers out on the picket line for nine months."

NAPE's communications director and lead negotiator in the strike did not send replies to emails seeking confirmation, but a Department of Justice communications official told rabble.ca last week that the request for conciliation board appointment is still "currently under review" and that a senior conciliation officer from the Labour Relations Agency has been working with both parties. Dwight Ball, the province's Liberal leader, could not not be reached for press time. 

Lorraine Michael lamented that Labatt, "is using this small local, this small operation as a place to try [to] take back from workers what they've had. To use this situation to implement [a] clawback of benefits and so on, set up double tiers."

The AB InBev employee mentioned above had similar concerns, telling rabble that "[t]hey are going to introduce performance based wages and probably try two tier wages along with cutting out legacy costs such as retirement benefits. That is the pattern." 

The worker also suggested that Labatt is deliberately delaying resolution of the strike because of AB InBev's contract with American Teamsters employees which expires in February, and that they hope to implement similar deals with both groups. In December, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that all local non-economic issues have been resolved in these ongoing negotiations.

Strikebreakers and the law

The use of temporary replacement workers (scabs or strikebreakers) has a controversial history, and is currently not permitted in Quebec or British Columbia. Laws against strikebreakers were also briefly in place in Ontario during the Rae administration.

Anti-scab legislation remains part of the platform of the New Democratic Party of Newfoundland and Labrador, and Michael emphasized his party's commitment to its implementation. She told rabble that,    "[s]ome of the longest strikes we've had, I believe, have been able to go on because of the use of scab labour."

"When the Harris government got rid of the anti-scab legislation in Ontario... they did not do any analysis of the legislation. I find that rather disturbing", said Michael. She also added that the law's presence in British Columbia and Quebec resulted in a marked decline in work disruptions.

Asked whether she believes the government will step in and respond to NAPE's request by appointing a conciliation board to end the strike, Michael said, "I hope they do call for conciliation, get to the table and get this resolved. I am concerned about the length of time it's taking to review. ...Right now it doesn't feel very positive to me."


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Cory Collins is a writer, artist and behaviour therapist. He has written for rabble, People's World, Aslan Media and Cordite Poetry Review, and his work has received two Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters Awards and was specially commended in the Welsh Poetry Competition. He lives in St. John's.

Photo: wikimedia commons

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